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Peter MacKinnon faces protest at Dalhousie University over blackface comments

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Interim President and Vice-Chancellor of Dalhousie University Peter MacKinnon, left, speaks at a podium while onlookers hold signs that say he should step down from his role.

Following comments made in his recent book, former University of Saskatchewan President Peter MacKinnon is facing allegations of racism and demands that he step down as students protest his appointment as the interim president of Dalhousie University.

MacKinnon was the president of the U of S from 1999 to 2012, and he is widely regarded for leaving a positive legacy on campus. The U of S even renamed the historic College Building the Peter MacKinnon Building in his honour.

In his recent book, University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus, MacKinnon comments on the use of blackface at Halloween parties. MacKinnon wrote of a particular instance where students incorporated blackface as a part of a Halloween costume.

“Its use has a long history and one frequently, though not always, viewed as racist. Here the students were not portraying Black persons in stereotypical, oppressed or disadvantaged situations… It was their use of blackface that ignited the controversy,” MacKinnon wrote in his book.

At his welcome breakfast in Halifax several weeks ago, around 20 students of Dalhousie University arrived to protest his selection as interim president for a six-month term.

Students who are upset with his appointment have said that his book contains “racist perspectives.” One such student, Haley Zacks, expressed that she was concerned that he “defended blackface.”

MacKinnon has defended himself saying that he does not condone blackface and that he regrets that his comments have caused “some distress.”

Dalhousie University declined to comment to the Sheaf on the matter.

Following the protests, a group of 28 law professors at Dalhousie University pressured the institution to condemn blackface. The group of faculty members stated their concern with MacKinnon’s position on the practice in a letter to the university’s provost.

“In this book, Mr. MacKinnon characterizes the practice of blackface as ‘frequently, though not always, viewed as racist,’” the letter said.

These professors are concerned that MacKinnon’s views on blackface could lead to Dalhousie University policies being interpreted as not condemning blackface.

“We ask the administration to confirm that an individual who wears blackface at an event to which the Code of Student Conduct or Personal Harassment Policy applies will be considered to have known or ought to have known that their behaviour would cause another person to feel demeaned, [intimidated] or harassed,” the letter said.

Dalhousie University spokesperson Brian Leadbetter said in an email to CBC that the university already does not condone blackface.

“Blackface is absolutely unacceptable and wrong,” Leadbetter said in the email. “All forms of racism, including blackface, are an affront to our values as a university and will not be tolerated at Dalhousie University.”

MacKinnon intends to stay on as interim president and will remain for six months until a permanent replacement is found.

Kienan Ashton

Photo: Matt Stickland, The Dalhousie Gazette / Supplied

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